Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 20, 2019

Is China a model for a New Green Deal?

Filed under: China,Ecology — louisproyect @ 10:39 pm

On January 14th, Dean Baker wrote an article for Truthout titled “The Green New Deal Is Happening in China” that poses important questions for the left. Since the article is focused exclusively on reducing greenhouse gases to the exclusion of any other “green” problem areas, can we assume that climate change is the be-all and end-all of the environmentalist left? It also leads to the broader question of China’s relevance to the left. If it is in the vanguard of the fight against climate change, then can we conclude that Xi Jinping might be legitimately described as socialist? As the American democratic socialist left has committed considerable energy behind the call for a Green New Deal, can we look at the Communist Party in China as an ally of the left?

For some, the efforts mounted by the Chinese government are indications that it does have progressive aspects. For example, MRZine, the online voice of Monthly Review, posted a piece last May titled “China’s determined march towards the ecological civilization” that was written by Andre Vltchek, the erstwhile Counterpunch contributor who is well-known for his belief in the merits of the BRICS. (Whether Brazil is still considered an asset is open to question. The entire left views Bolsinaro as either a fascist or a rightwing goon, even though China has no plans to stop doing business with him and vice versa.)

Vltchek sought out a nonagenarian named John Cobb Jr., whose admiration for the Chinese governments past and present is unbounded. He told Vltchek:

The talk of moving toward an ecological civilization also encouraged reflection about “civilization” alongside “market.” That supported those Chinese who were concerned that the narrow concern for wealth at all costs was not healthy for human society. Marxism had always emphasized economic matters, but it was concerned to move society away from competition toward cooperation. It was always concerned with the distribution of goods, so that the poor would be benefited, and workers would be empowered. The idea of recovering traditional Chinese civilizational values gained in acceptance.

While Dean Baker’s article is far more measured, he does offer this:

Over the last decade, China’s GDP growth has averaged 7.9 percent annually. Perhaps there is a story where China’s economy would have grown even more rapidly without the subsidies and other measures to promote green growth, but obviously, these measures could not have been very serious impediments if the country could still sustain one of the fastest growth stretches the world has ever seen.

One cannot be sure if Baker identifies “green growth” as synonymous with reducing greenhouse gases but if so he is sadly mistaken. Even if alternative energy sources constituted 90 percent of the country’s supply, it would still be a ticking time-bomb as far as the environmental crisis is concerned. Let me review some of the key problem areas.

Water

China’s environmental crisis is deepest when it comes to water along a number of fronts. In 2008, Scientific American—not a Trotskyite journal, the last time I noticed—published a piece titled “China’s Three Gorges Dam: An Environmental Catastrophe?” that reported on problems so deep that even government officials could not sweep them under the rug. They included the likelihood of “triggering landslides, altering entire ecosystems and causing other serious environmental problems—and, by extension, endangering the millions who live in its shadow”, according to Scientific American. In a country where biodiversity is sacrificed to “socialist development”, the dam has proven deeply destructive. The Three Gorges area alone accounts for 20 percent of Chinese seed plants—more than 6,000 species. As the dam floods one area while rending others arid, that biodiversity ends up on the chopping block. By the same token, the dammed Yangtze River is host to 177 unique fish species, all of which have been subject to conditions that might cause extinction. Read the entire Scientific American article to get an idea of how far China is from an “ecological civilization”.

Moving right along, China suffers enormous water pollution due to unregulated manufacturing. Greenpeace published a report in June 2017 revealing that 85% of the water in Shanghai was undrinkable and that 56.4% was unfit for any purpose. One of the polluters was Luliang Chemical Industry that dumped 5,000 tons of chemical waste next to a river used as a drinking water source. China has targeted companies like Luliang through a new taxation policy that bases a fee on the amount of pollution being produced. A more “socialist” policy would be to begin jailing the polluters but I wouldn’t count on it. Taili Ni, a doctoral student, wrote a paper titled “China’s ineffective water pollution policy: an issue of enforcement” that strengthens my doubts. China’s water protection laws are among the strongest in the world, but there is a gap between the letter of the law and how it is enforced. Ni calls this the “enforcement gap”.

Environmental protection and enforcement of environmental policies rely on local governments to be successful. However, political corruption is a very present factor at the local level, and greatly interferes with enforcement. Local governments tend to have slightly different goals and motivations than the central government, and the system of fragmented authoritarianism allows them to act according to these motivations. Economic growth is crucial at the local level too, and in many cases local officials face high incentives to report economic success. There is a close link between local governments and polluting enterprises; in fact, local governments are often major shareholders of these enterprises, creating a common conflict of interest.

If you consider her words carefully, you will be reminded of how things work not only in China but in all countries where “economic growth” is in the driver’s seat. The USSR was a disaster area environmentally because decisions were made on generating income for the Stalinist state. For example, it was cotton production that turned the Aral Sea into a dead zone. In China, you get the same habits that were deeply engrained in Maoist time but magnified by the country’s integration into global markets. If 1.5 million people have died as a result of pollution in China, that can be rationalized by party theoreticians as the costs of building an industrial society that can meet the needs of the people. Is there much difference between this idea and Walt Rostow’s development theories? If so, I can’t detect it.

Soil

I can’t help but wonder how Xi Jinping gets a free pass in Monthly Review when his government is carrying out policies deeply at odds with John Bellamy Foster’s analysis of the “metabolic rift”.

Unlike the United States, China’s farms are smaller and less mechanized but that has not prevented them from using chemicals indiscriminately. To give you an idea of the dimension of the problem, China uses more than 30 per cent of fertilizers and pesticides sold globally (it is first in the world) but on only 9 per cent of the world’s soil. When fertilizers seep into rivers and lakes, it fosters the growth of algae that is inimical to marine life—a process called eutrophication. It has led to Chinese leisure-seekers trying to enjoy its algae-ridden lakes as the Guardian reported last year as best they can.  Here are people trying to make the best of a sorry situation at a lake overrun by algae:

China has made an effort to convince farmers to reduce their chemical fertilizer input with some success but it still does not resolve the “metabolic rift” that John Bellamy Foster has written about so persuasively. To do that effectively, it would require overcoming the breach between city and countryside as articulated in the Communist Manifesto but that is not very feasible given China’s integration into world markets. Like all capitalist countries, the cities have emerged over a century as production and export centers. To restructure China is a Herculean task even if it is a necessary one. Missing from the calculations of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement of a Green New Deal and Dean Baker’s salute to China for carrying one out is a recognition that capitalism is unsustainable. Period.

Air

Largely as a result of wide-spread dissatisfaction with the toxic air pollution in most cities, the government cracked down in 2017 making even Greenpeace impressed with the results.

But under Donald Trump’s assault on its chief economic rival, the Chinese capitalists and the “Communist” state that rules on their behalf have been forced to retreat in order to allow firms to maintain a certain level of profitability.

Last September the Ministry of Ecology and Environment removed blanket bans on heavy industry production. Monitoring was decentralized, with local governments allowed to set their own targets. As is the case across the board, economic and environmental needs clash with each other. Despite Baker’s reference to “green growth”, the reality in China is that you have green versus growth. If the world was organized on the basis of human need rather than private profit, this would not be such a big problem. However, that would require a worldwide socialist revolution that most on the left view as a hopeless project. I guess I’ll stick to that even if I am a minority of one. That’s why I call myself Unrepentant.

Externalities

Finally, there is a failure on the part of Dean Baker and Andre Vltchek to acknowledge the environmental impact that China has on the countries it has established trade relations with. Was trade relations a euphemism? Sorry. I meant to say colonized.

If China has eased up on coal production internally, that hasn’t prevented it from profiting from it elsewhere. It is not that different from England turning to the New World in search of timber after it had cleared its own forests in the 18th century.

Kenya has been one of the beneficiaries of this colonialism. A consortium of Kenyan and Chinese energy firms are building a coal plant on the only part that is untouched by industrial development. Scientists and economists worry that this will become the largest source of air pollution in the country. Naturally, the bituminous coal that will be fed into this plant will be imported from South Africa, one that releases large amounts of toxins, particularly if improperly burned. Does anybody believe that China, Kenya or South Africa care much about this?

Finally, there is the matter of China’s ties to Brazil, its number one trading partner. Despite Bolsonaro’s invective against China during his campaign, there are signs that nothing much will change. Li Yang, China’s Consul General in Rio de Janeiro, said, “Personally, I don’t believe there would be a radical change from the new federal government towards China. I don’t believe so. So, either economic or political ties between the two parts, both Brazil and China, will be further tightened. We firmly believe so.” So, you can expect China to benefit from the soybeans being produced in the Amazon rainforest after all the trees have been cut down and the native peoples driven out or killed.

What if Bolsonaro carries out a Pinochet-type coup? Would that make China willing to break trade relations with an anti-working class dictatorship? Given China’s history under the Communist Party, I rather doubt that especially what happened under Pinochet and a China that was arguably still socialist.

In 1973, after General Pinochet overthrew Allende in Chile, the Chinese Embassy would not provide refuge to leftists fleeing terror. Just two years later, China offered Pinochet a $50 million loan, even when European governments would not extend a penny.

Things kept on this way for decades. In 1998, Jon Lee Anderson told New Yorker readers about the red carpet treatment the murderer received in China when Jiang Zemin was president:

Curiously, Pinochet’s popularity extends to the People’s Republic of China, which he has visited twice. China is a major client for Chile’s copper exports, and Pinochet has nurtured his relationship with Beijing. “They are very fond of me,” he says. “Because I saw that Chinese Communism was patriotic Communism, not the Communism of Mao. I opened up the doors to Chinese commerce, letting them hold an exposition here, in which they brought everything they had—and they sold everything they brought.” On both his trips to China, Pinochet says, the Chinese treated him with great respect. “The first time they put me in a house, but the last time it was a palace. And I became good friends with General Chen, a warrior who fought in Korea, in Vietnam, and who doesn’t like the Americans very much.” Pinochet shot me a sidelong glance and grinned.

10 Comments »

  1. When all is said and done, the reality is that China is mass-producing renewable energy implements (solar panels, rooftop solar water heaters, etc) that are essential to a viable renewable energy transition and which the US is definitely behind on owing to its role in the international fossil fuel cartels. When China floods the world market with renewable energy implements that are low-priced and sold en masse at places like Home Depot or Wal Mart, there will be a tidal change in the US. The issue currently is that we have very little incentive created to maximize a transition away from fossil fuels and mass produce the implements. If China can do for implements what it has done for the rest of the consumer goods market over the past 45 years, that would be a huge positive.

    Comment by stew312856 — January 20, 2019 @ 11:22 pm

  2. Andrew, the argument is not over climate change. It is over all the stuff I covered in my article. Selling Chinese goods in Home Depot does not compensate for water pollution, etc.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 20, 2019 @ 11:59 pm

  3. The energy production sector never pollutes water. Coal fired power plants, natural gas pipelines, hydroelectric dams, nuclear power, never done any ecological damage to air or water?

    Comment by stew312856 — January 21, 2019 @ 12:49 am

  4. The water pollution comes from manufacturers dumping toxic waste into lakes and rivers as I pointed out. For example, the Luliang Chemical Industry I discussed above dumped chromium into a river. This is a carcinogen. Here is an article about its impact. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/apr/11/poisoning-exposed-illegally-dumped-chromium-china

    Comment by louisproyect — January 21, 2019 @ 12:58 am

  5. @#3
    I am not sure if you’re saying coal production and usage to produce energy does or does not pollute water. It most definitely does pollute water sources.

    “Water Pollution from Coal includes negative health and environmental effects from the mining, processing, burning, and waste storage of coal, including acid mine drainage, thermal pollution from coal plants, acid rain, and contamination of groundwater, streams, rivers, and seas from heavy metals, mercury, and other toxins and pollutants found in coal ash, coal sludge, and coal waste.”
    [Source: https://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Water_pollution_from_coal%5D

    Comment by Reza — January 21, 2019 @ 5:16 pm

  6. Sorry … Correct link:
    https://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Water_pollution_from_coal

    Comment by Reza — January 21, 2019 @ 5:18 pm

  7. Coal extraction AFAIK is a catastrophic source of water pollution in areas where coal is mined; but if I read the situation accurately, 1) the overwhelmingly greater part of damage done by coal is in the form of air pollution and the emission of greenhouse gases contributing to climate change, and 2) pollution from modern industrial agriculture and other industrial sources is by far the greater source of contamination of the water supply. This applied in such well-known cases as the pollution of the tributaries and waters of the Great Lakes during the heyday of Midwest industrialism, if less now, and perhaps applies in China today. As far as I know, nobody was mining coal along the banks of the Cuyahoga back in the day.

    I don’t have statistics at my fingertips, so will be happy to be corrected on this if someone has a good and up-to-date set of facts and numbers.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — January 21, 2019 @ 6:12 pm

  8. This Scientific American article (link below) from 2016 shows that emissions of mercury, for example, do affect the oceans (and, we can deduce, other water sources).

    Here’s one of the introductory paragraphs, providing the good news:
    “The new study, published online on November 10 [2016] by Environmental Science & Technology, links the decline directly to reduced mercury emissions in North America. Most of that reduction has occurred because of the marketplace shift by power plants and industry away from coal, the major source of mercury emissions. Pollution control requirements imposed by the federal government have also cut mercury emissions.”

    And then, we also get this:
    “The new study comes as worldwide mercury emissions continue to rise, particularly in the Pacific, source of much of the tuna and other seafood consumed in the U.S. That increase of about 3.8 percent per year results largely from increased reliance on coal-fired power plants in China, India and other Asian countries.”

    Source: Tuna’s Declining Mercury Contamination Linked to U.S. Shift Away from Coal
    https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/tunas-declining-mercury-contamination-linked-to-u-s-shift-away-from-coal/

    Comment by Reza — January 21, 2019 @ 6:48 pm

  9. Good one, Reza. The movement of coal-based contaminants from coal smoke to the oceans, thence to fish and to human beings, is certainly water pollution.

    What I had in mind was more like what we see here (forgive my citing the reactionary Sierra Club, but …): https://content.sierraclub.org/coal/posts/what-does-78-billion-gallons-toxic-sludge-look

    This is a catastrophic and very large but still relatively localized effect of coal mining as opposed to coal burning, which is more in the same family as the agricultural and industrial pollution of fresh water sources that Louis discusses in re China. People do not drink raw seawater and nor is it very useful for agricultural purposes, so this is clearly very important though I would not want to say that it’s important.

    The problem is that environmental contamination–and not only those aspects that are forcing climate change, though it’s all interrelated–is such a never-ending pasta bowl that Death hardly knows where to begin his feast–and we are hard-pressed to fit it all into a single coherent perspective.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — January 22, 2019 @ 2:05 pm

  10. “not want to say that it’s important” –> not want to say that it’s more important.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — January 22, 2019 @ 2:06 pm


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